Its an interesting time working with children. I have recently put myself forward for a research project and as it has to be relevant to my work place and my employers. I have decided to look at the thorny subject of age assessments.
Probably a bad idea when so much research has already been done around this firstly by Heaven Crawly in 2007 with ‘when is a child not a child?‘ and now more recently by the Children Society with ‘I don’t feel human’, Yet even with this mistakes are still being made about age assessments and vulnerable young people not receiving the right support or help.
The answer is sadly not easy and with no matter how much good will is made with the assessments that age determination on its own is going to be hard. Furthermore, there is the objective of the agents bringing the young people into the country. Especially when considering child sexual exploitation and the advantage of having young girls or boys act older to get past the assessments in order for them to disappear. There is also the dilemma around the benefits that are provided to young people if they are under the age of 18, meaning the credibility of a few impact on the outcomes for so many, when older young people who may still be vulnerable in themselves have argued to be under 18.
Despite this, looking further still into the assessment process I have had to look at definitions of childhood. One argument that has been consistent in all research is that young people from poorer economic climates may present as being older looking. And their demeanour presenting as older because what advantages are there in being a child.
This amuses me because actually the research is right, when completing an assessment of age it is essential to understand what that young person defines as childhood? what have they had to do to grow up and survive? And what are our comparisons in the UK? I guess the bit that makes me chuckle was observing an independent advocate pulling a toy train out for a 17 year old young man to play with. It is clear that we can not make comparisons so should we force all aspects of what we think is childhood onto someone who has already had to grow up?
But then I wondered is this right, in the UK right now there are more and more young people experiencing poverty, abuse and neglect. Growing up in poor conditions and failing to engage with education and employment due to their basic need of survival. And also is the young people making it to the UK the most vulnerable or the ones who have had the money to make the journey originally. We are now hearing of stories of tragic losses of young people in Afghanistan freezing to death in make shift illegal camps.
But again it is not easy, what is right and wrong? are our perceptions of childhood changing and are we able to understand what childhood is? Which, means spending more time researching these subjects but also more time working on for us in social work that have to undertake these complex tasks is our understanding of assessments.
Alone this is a massive subject with many different theories and data which could provide the wrong cue to through the person or people out who are completing the assessment. Experience is essential, however can be less helpful in this situation of completing age assessments. The reason for this is the time allowed to complete the assessment and fully analyse the information given. One reason for this is the information shared by the young person you are assessing. When understanding the experiences that a separated child may have experienced in travelling to the UK it is important to understand the difficulties that they may experience and then why they may not trust us as professionals.
For me this subject remains immensely interesting and important at so many levels, firstly to safeguard separated children but also in improving the understanding of social worker with all children that are vulnerable and continuing to improve the assessment process.
Have you ever wondered when you become an Adult and when your Childhood finishes. Is there a date? a time? maybe a place. I still struggle to work out whether I have succeed in growing up? But for the young people we work with that are in Care, this decision is made for them. The choice made by law. For many an age that is counted down from the day the Care Order is granted, and often for the wrong reasons.
This week I have supported one such Young Person as her 18th Birthday draws closer. A likeable young woman who has been diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. Who as a child was sexually abused by a family friend, and neglected by her parents. And as she grew older, developed an attention seeking personality for the emergency services.
This Young Person frequently self harms through cutting, and tying ligatures or taking an overdose. All of which would always be done out of hours in order to be seen by the Police or Ambulance service. A misunderstanding of the Care that they provided, and a care that she feels that she is not receiving and craves from her parents.
With such little time left to her 18th Birthday, and a lack of engagement with the local CAMH’s Service was not leaving a lot of options for this Young Person to receive help and address her concerns, preventing her to live safely. The reason why this is important is that at 18 she will be in a twilight age to old for Child Services and to young for Adult Services.
In order to make these last few months in care work, I asked for a multi professional meeting to be arranged with the Young Person to be involved. The aim of the meeting was to encourage the Young Person to develop her own Pathway Plan. A plan of how she will successfully Leave Care.
In arranging this meeting it gave an opportunity for the Young Person to share with her parents her feelings, about what she has been doing. A chance for them to hear the pain she suffers and why. An opportunity for this to be done in a safe manner, to offer support to both parents and the young person. The advantage being that the Professionals could then add the support that they could offer to the young person and her parents. Similar to a Family Group Conference but with less family and friends.
The meeting was fraught, and there was a lot of anger and tension from both the young person and her parents. However, I was proud of the Young Person and noticed the confidence that I had seen develop over the months; as she spoke in front of everyone. I also acknowledged that she remained present through out the whole meeting often listening to difficult comments about herself. When I reminded her of this I could see a smile on her face and her confidence grow as a result.
For many young people 18 will always be too soon to leave Care, especially when support is needed. But the level of support required is not enough for Adult Mental Health Services. And with a shaky agreement to try group work therapy to help address issues and coping mechanism. There was a positive outcome to this meeting and there is still time to help prepare her for what might be available post 18. More importantly rebuild and re establish relationships with her family, that the young person holds important to her.
I know for myself at 18 I had left home, and I was looking after myself. However, this was my choice and I had my family. Further more my mental health was good. For this young person it may not be as easy but she has been given the choice, and an opportunity to take the help one last time before she turns 18. So far it has been 5 days since she has last self harmed………